This text is a transcription of the interview conducted by Michał Banasiak
Jan Macháček – is a Czech columnist and musician. He covers political, economic, European and geopolitical issues. Currently, he publishes his columns in the Czech daily newspaper Lidové noviny and writes his daily column called Monitor JM online. He also provides analysis for Czech radio and TV stations. In 2015 he became a Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Institute for Politics and Society. He takes part in setting up the strategy and agenda of this think tank, and in organizing debates and conferences on various political and economic issues. He is also a member of President Petr Pavel’s foreign policy advisory group. From 2011 to 2015, as Chairman of the Board of Trustees, he took an important part in creating the agenda of Vaclav Havel Library. He is an active musician and as a member of the band “The Plastic People of the Universe”. His journalism has been awarded on several occasions, including the latest Ferdinand Peroutka Award in 2010.
Michał Banasiak: Hello and welcome, my name is Michał Banasiak, and this is The Institute of New Europe’s series of interviews within The Polish-Czech Forum Project. Our guest today is Jan Macháček – a Czech columnist.
Jan Macháček: Nice to see you, and thanks for the invitation.
Michał Banasiak: I would like to start with your opinion on the current condition of relations between Poland and Czechia.
Jan Macháček: I think that relationship is very good at the moment. Both of the governments, especially in the Czech Republic, are emphasising that the state of the relationship between Poland and the Czech Republic is very positive. Both countries are strong supporters of Ukraine. Both countries are helping Ukraine, as far as the defence equipment is concerned. Both countries have a huge influx of Ukrainian refugees, which are getting integrated to some extent into our economies. So we have a lot of mutual interests, that strengthened at the moment due to the geopolitical situation. Besides, there is a new Czech ambassador on his way to Poland. That’s just the beginning so perhaps you could ask, more specific, next round of questions.
Michał Banasiak: Yes, I would like to start with the question on the topic of problematic issues. Because we know that through the decades we had some problematic issues. For example, during the time that Poland and, at the time Czechoslovakia, were part of the Eastern block. What do you think now are the most problematic issues, are they still connected with the past?
Jan Macháček: The most problematic issue is definitely the lack of infrastructure connection between both countries. We are neighbour countries, and we have, in many respects, less infrastructure connections than we used to have. At the moment, there are very few railway connections, there are almost no highway connections. It is improving, only very slowly. There is also a lack of functioning connection in energy infrastructure. I think this, from the geographic point of view, is very surprising. Because both of these economies are growing, we are in technological recession at the moment, but we are, in normal conditions, fast growing economies of neighbouring countries, they should be much better interconnected. As far as the infrastructure is concerned. To me this is the most problematic topic. Actually, maybe Czech Republic is more to blame. For instance – there is a connection to Czech highway going from Prague to Hradec Kralove, in direction to Wrocław in Poland. Whereas Poles have finished their part of the highway, as far as I understand it, Czechs still have a long way to go. Both countries are lacking also fast trains connections, both within the country and across the border. Obviously, it would be more natural to use the corridors through the southern Silesia and Moravia. These days a very important topic is energy security, as both of us know. Czech Republic would certainly need better connections to Polish ports etc., and Polish energy infrastructure which is being developed at the Baltic Sea.
Michał Banasiak: You mentioned energy, so I would like to ask you about the energy situation in Czechia. We know that your country is among those who resign from Russian oil and gas, at least partially. How did Czechia deal with that energy crisis last year? How is it prepared for the coming winter?
Jan Macháček: Situation from exactly year ago was very dramatic. Prices of gas, physical lack of it. Prices of energy on the energy stock exchange in Leipzig were very high. People were really making preparations for potentially very tough winter. These days, at least from the beginning of the spring we know that situation is much more positive. These high energy prices were to some extent artificial, caused by the manipulation of delivery from Russia and also by lack of preparedness of all European countries, and lack of infrastructure. Construction of these new mobile LNG stations in Germany and Holland certainly helped. Czech Republic also managed through the energy dominant stakes. Mostly state owned companies chose to buy a stake in these terminals. We are fulfilling the capacity of our reserved tanks etc.
Czech government nationalised, or bought from German companies our reserved tanks for natural gas. They were bought by energy infrastructure company “ČEPS” which is the owner of electricity network in this country. Unlike those pessimistic predictions in September last year, it turned out that there is a lot of natural gas globally. If it is somehow managed smartly, that Europe doesn’t have to answer to the bank guarantees it does not have to face some dramatic or catastrophic consequences. Czech Republic has together with Hungary, and I believe Austria, some exceptions on oil deliveries from Russia, but it applies only to pipeline connection, actually one pipeline connection “Druzhba”, as far as I understand it. I don’t know if Czech Republic will use this exception fully, but we are still buying some Russian oil, I don’t know how much exactly, from “Druzhba” pipeline. We have negotiated an exception on the EU level, so we are fully independent of Russian deliveries, as far as natural gas is concerned, but we are still partially dependent on the Russian oil delivered big through the pipeline. Embargo on the Russian oil applies only to different deliveries routs, other than “Druzhba”, or trough oil tankers and other facilities in the ports.
Michał Banasiak: As you mentioned – Poland and Czechia both host a lot of Ukrainian refugees. How does it look in Czechia? What are the government programs to help these people?
Jan Macháček: These people mostly have status of refugees, but it will be definitely up to these people, how they’re gonna decide about their future life. It depends on development of the war, it depends on the future reconstruction of Ukraine and her economy. I think we can clearly say it is very probably that not all of these people will come back to Ukraine. Some of them will stay in our countries, that’s clear. It will be also, to some extent, the result of market forces. We should not only emphasise that our countries are helping these people, because Poles and Czechs know very well that Ukrainians as labour force are very much helpful to our economies. Due to the lack of language barriers, our languages being closely related, we can basically understand each other without a problem. We have a very low unemployment and lack of skilled and unskilled labour in both countries. Without Ukrainian work force part of our construction sector of economy would come to a hold. Ukrainian ladies are working in supermarkets and in all kinds of other services. It’s not like we are only helping, they are also helping our economies to function and grow. This is my impression.
Michał Banasiak: What about the migrants from the Middle East and Northern African countries. Is there a big discussion about those groups in Czechia? Is it a problem, is it an issue, for Czech people?
Jan Macháček: This is a very political issue, because in principal Czech population is strongly against mandatory quotas for refugees from Muslim or African countries. Government negotiated something on behalf of Czech Republic in the European Union. It’s not very popular, they say we have an exception until we have this huge influx of Ukrainian refugees. But generally, Czech population is quite welcoming towards immigrants with whom they had experienced that are hardworking, contributing to the economy. We have a huge Vietnamese minority in the country, and Czech had no troubles in integrating Vietnamese, neither with cooperating with Vietnamese. Because they are very hardworking people and they don’t create any ghettos, they don’t cause any social disruptions. Similarly – Czech have no troubles with refugees coming from Ukraine. But they are very, maybe it’s similar case in Poland, sceptical with potential influx of refugees form Muslim countries. Because they are afraid of ghettos being created, like in Germany. They are being afraid that it is not as easy to integrate these people into the society, into our culture etc. Czech are kind of worried about it. On the other, hand it is clear that until now these people from Muslim countries, or from Africa, are not coming much into our countries. Even if you would agree with some quotas, they will resettle back into the Germany, Holland and France, into these countries, because they have family connections there and some relatives. It does not have to be like this always. This idea of potential refugees influx from Middle East and Africa is not popular among Czech population. Czech population clearly does not like such an idea. I think it’s a very similar case in Poland.
Michał Banasiak: We have Poland and Czechia, both countries cooperating within V4, and many say that this group is frozen now. Because of the foreign policy of Hungary political cooperation is not possible anymore. What are your thoughts on that?
Jan Macháček: Well, I think that there are some voices that says that V4 should be frozen or even cancelled. But common sense advise is that there is no reason to cancel regional cooperation, because of development of Hungarian policy. The position of both government and also the president of the countries is that V4 is here to stay, and it does have not only meaning on political or geopolitical level, it also has meaning on cultural level. It is providing a lot of funds for cultural exchange, for cultural cooperation. As far as politics goes, it is very important to emphasise that fact that in Hungary they have different opinions on some foreign policy issues we should flag a platform to discuss it. If someone has a different opinion, we should try to convince him in open conversation that we have different opinions. It would be very interesting to find what is leading Hungarians to their foreign policy positions and discuss it then, and perhaps argue with them. I think its normal phenomenon in open platform, in open societies, the exchange of ideas and attitudes, explaining the attitudes. It’s always better to speak with your partners, even if they start to departure from your common position. It’s always good to talk, and try to find out why. It’s definitely better than to isolate somebody. This is my very personal opinion. It would be not very smart to cancel some platform, or to froze some platform, just before the expected elections. We will have elections in Slovakia, we will have elections in your country. Regional cooperation, I believe, should stay here. Whereas we are welcoming the civic society of different voluntary groupings, we should also have different regional and voluntary groupings within the European Union. We should take example from Austerlitz format, a cooperation of German speaking countries, which are Germany and Austria. There is a tradition of such kind of cooperation in the European Union. We have Benelux and Nordic countries. Such formats are making Europe more colourful. If you have differences, you have to speak about these differences to conquer it.
Michał Banasiak: Another original platform of cooperation is Three Seas initiative. What is the political perception and social perception of that project in Czechia? What is also your opinion on its development? Do you think that this the platform that can be developed more in coming years?
Jan Macháček: It seems to me that it started with a huge support of Poland, but also with support coming from the U.S., under the previous administrations. It seems to me there is no longer a clear sign from the U.S. administration that they are strongly supportive of this initiative. I myself witnessed, about year ago, a visit of a deputy of the U.S. trade department for Europe, and when she was asked about Three Seas she said that she does not know what it is. It is little bit unclear how much supportive Americans are in that term. Their role in Three Seas project is clearly very important, because they have the financial resources. It makes sense to me that it should be also an American project due to the need of its financing. However, it seems to me that current administration is lacking enthusiasm to do so. If Americans are not going to participate more in the Three Seas project, we should revaluate it, perhaps thinking about it more in purely European perspective. Definitely most of the projects, especially those which are concerning the infrastructure, as I mentioned at the beginning, make sense to me. It’s a rational move to integrate European countries, as far as energy infrastructure is considered. From north to the south, this link is strategically very important. But we know that European defence is to an extent outsourced to the U.S., and everything of strategic purpose must be created with as great involvement of Americans as possible.
I have certain doubts about enthusiasm of Western Europe considered Three Seas initiative, because if you have not American banks and funds financing it, you can have Western European financing it, but they have even lower level of enthusiasm I’m afraid. At this moment most of our countries are lacking financial resources to integrate deeper and more actively our energetic infrastructure.
Michał Banasiak: Thank you very much.
Jan Macháček: Thank you for inviting me again, and thanks to our listeners.
Photo: Image by Jiří Rotrekl from Pixabay
The project “Intensifying Polish-Czech cooperation on the foreign policy priorities of both countries in 2023” aims to create a substantive basis for intensifying Polish-Czech cooperation in the field of foreign policy priorities of both countries. Public task financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the grant competition “Polish-Czech Forum 2023”. The cost of the project and the amount of grant is PLN 55 000,00.